An Interview with John Liebler, Vice President of Retail & Store Operations for Shinola

Training, technology, and how to win in retail. The inside perspective from an industry veteran.

shinola detroit store

Last week we had the pleasure of chatting with John Liebler, Vice President of Retail & Store Operations for Shinola. As a leader in the retail industry for 30 years, he has seen wave after wave of changes in operations, technology, and consumer preferences. But now that the demands of digital and omnichannel integration are pushing the industry to move faster than ever and competition for consumers’ attention and dollar share is fierce, how do retailers stay nimble?

John has the inside perspective.

How do you win in retail?

John’s answer is clearly focused. “I believe that regardless of the retailer, that human connection can be the differentiator of a guest wanting to go into a store for a purchase versus just purchasing online,” he said. “That’s what retailers need to figure out and do really well.”

This is true for most retailers from luxury brands to even everyday retailers, like a Home Depot, he pointed out.

And while it seems like a simple answer, there are many moving parts in this equation. One of the largest, and most overlooked, according to John is having truly holistic training for sales associates across all retail channels.

How do you turn your associates into brand ambassadors?

But what does holistic training actually look like? It goes beyond ensuring staff can operate POS systems efficiently and grasp the functional capabilities of technologies the retailer may be implementing.

Rather, retailers need to focus on reinforcing “behaviors necessary from a selling perspective that maximize the use of the system,” John said.

This involves teaching associates what proper greetings, in-store interactions, and professional cadence are. From a real-world, best practices standpoint.

“What does that conversation look like, what does my next set of outreach look like that brings you in for that second item? Does the associate learn about the guest’s significant other, are they aware of the guest’s special occasions, or that the guest is celebrating being accepted to law school?”

These little details can make all the difference!

In addition to learning how to capture truly meaningful information during and after the selling ceremony, associates should learn about the function appropriate outreach serves in the relationship-building process. How does it look, how does it sound, and when does it happen?

Leading the way with explicit focus in these areas will help your staff become the influencers you need them to be, and truly transform the customer experience into something that is consistent, memorable, and ultimately distinctive in a crowded landscape. This is what John feels can be a retailer’s biggest competitive advantage.

“It’s all about connecting with the guest.”

Implementing new retail technology

But along with providing holistic training to associates, Liebler strongly believes management also has a duty to solicit feedback from store staff when it comes to implementing new outreach strategies and clienteling technology.

“One of the major elements missing that I have seen time and time again is that the people actually using [the technology] aren’t part of the conversation.”

According to Liebler, the technology needs to be simple and ultimately serve to enhance, rather than replace, the personal relationship the customer has with the brand.

“I’m stubbornly refusing to believe that the human connection is going to go away,” said Liebler. “I truly believe that people want to come in, they want that human connection. But we need to, as a brick and mortar employees, be their trusted advisors and their friends. We need to know our guests as well if not better than they know themselves.”

The Modern Consumer

So, while modern consumers may think they want speed and convenience above all else, brick and mortar is still Shinola’s primary revenue driver.

“For me, brick and mortar establishes that long term relationship. It allows us to tell the story. It allows us to build brand loyalty.”

And the numbers speak to the power of being able to craft a multi-dimensional brand narrative with an in-store experience.

“Our AUR and our conversion are significantly higher year over year and continue to improve as we focus our training on creating great guest connections and clienteling,” John stated.

So to answer our initial question: How do you win in retail?

“Ultimately, it’s about the one-on-one relationship that the customer has with the brand and their comfort level with that relationship,” John said.

  1. Have a compelling brand story and an avenue to share that story.
  2. Create a personal relationship.
  3. Integrate technology seamlessly to reinforce that relationship, and make sure your associates are trained not only in the functionality of this technology, but also in the art of conversation and relationship-based selling.